Saturday, October 30, 2010

Karma Comes To See You

Alex Grey
"Journey of the Wounded Healer"
Optical and Visionary Art

"Psychedelic Optical and Visionary Art, Since the 1960's" is a slowly opening time capsule with a provocative premise: can an art exhibition hold together polar opposites?  My experience as an artist, looking at this show, is one of amusement and wonder- this is an effort at revisionist art history in the making.  When a minimalist Frank Stella can hang on a wall in close proximity to Albert Alvarez "Karma and Death" - they do seem to pervade my consciousness....  What kind of story is this show trying to tell? Is it extolling the virtues of recreational drugs? It certainly takes me back to the old mantra of "sex,drugs, and rock n roll".

Outlined here for the viewer:  there once was a time when all the rules were challenged and a few were broken (but this might also be read as over-the-top indulgent and narcissistic).  Is that the point?  Is this show a cautionary tale?  I would have loved to be in the room when the ideas for this show were developed..

Then again, what need does this show answer?  It is a cabinet for the curious, and maybe it will also pull in some of the baby boomers who actually lived through the experience of the 1960's.  Looking back, if the 1960's brought a period of self-indulgence, it was also a period of the civil rights movement and the birth of feminism, plus an anti-war movement that swept the country.  Social activism, and heightened consciousness for every living thing seemed to co-exist, thank you very much.  That is the background providing a foundation for the art on view at The Memorial Art Gallery.

If you believe the philosophy professor and art critic Arthur Danto, then the historical narrative of progress in art came to an end with Andy Warhol's "Brillo Box" - and what we see here in this show is an implosion - where the practice of art fragments and consumes itself.  Zap Comix - popular underground reading material from R. Crumb (not represented in this show - but tonic for the 1960's) is sorely missed as is the anarchic painter Peter Saul, and the optical art of Bridget Riley ( just to name a few missing links).

Enter the exhibit under the theatrical lights that create a swirl on the walls and floor ( and in your mind) and you find the sophisticated in a dialog with the self-taught.  Years ago, many of the paintings on view would have been considered Folk Art, but maybe these distinctions are disappearing.  This is part of my impression that this show is a tug-of-war between various art world factions.

I have my arguments with Fred Tomaselli (about copyright issues) but I like his constellations of pills in "Ripple Trees" that is one of the keystones of this show.  Within his work there is an interest in nature and geometry,abstraction, silhouette and reality all rolled into one.  I think a hallmark of late 20th century art is a layering of representation and meaning, in several paintings in this show such layering creates a busy surface which takes time to read properly.

Sometimes the reading of the painting is not as logical as one might expect.  An example might be the Cartesian spaces described in the painting by Al Held ("South of West 1") that lead to visual paradox.  The wall label mentions string theory, but my guess is that Al Held is trying to subvert the strict logic of geometry which he obsessively constructs.

I had the good fortune to be present at the creation of one of the major paintings on view, so I can remember it first as a drawing on canvas, and then remember the process that Alex Grey employed (great clarity and sense of purpose).  His "Journey of the Wounded Healer" has attracted many who come to marvel at this triptych that describes three stages of life (and death).  Alex was my neighbor for a while, and he learned his craft while working as a medical illustrator and a preparator of cadavers for dissection. A follower of Tibetan Buddhism, Alex and his wife Allyson are building a museum in Wappinger's Falls New York for their artwork.

I mentioned obsession before, and that seems to be another characteristic of this exhibition -  excessive detail( gone is the modernist slogan "less is more").  Exceptions are made for artists Phillip Taafe, Stella, and Victor Vasarely - who are more attentive to a stricter premise and give little attention to embroidery.

George Cisneros provides "Cascades of Jubilation" - a video presentation complete with dark room and round mirrors that is the equivalent of Pac-Man( a prototypical video game) built with a primitive computer from the early 1980's.  In those days even the photo on this page would have required more memory capacity than what was on board that old Apple ll.  Boy, have we come a long way in such a short time! ( or is that an illusion too?).

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Moving Image

Life is fluid
photo by Alan Singer

A great photograph can bring tears to my eyes;  I am subject to the force of images - as I suspect many others are too.  Today the pace of image making must break all speed records, pictures come at us from every angle, demanding attention - and I am caught in their spell.

The first exhibition I attended - where photography was given respect as art - was "The Family of Man".
It was arranged by Edward Steichen, and it was the culmination of his life's work as a photographer and spokesperson for a movement.  I was with my parents, I was not more than five years old, but  I clearly recall the images from that show, now more than half a century ago.  Most if not all of the photos were in black and white, though some of the prints were very large.  I imagined myself, even at that young age, as a photographer having my show at The Museum of Modern Art.

Even though I am known as a painter and printmaker, my first exhibition in New York City was a photographic performance piece.  At that time I was a college student who shared a dark room with Joel Peter Witkin at The Cooper Union.  We took classes with Roy DeCarava ( who passed away recently ) who was known for his portrayals of jazz greats in smoky clubs.  Before I got to college I had my own pantheon of photography heroes, and within a few years I would get to meet most of them.

Walter and Naomi Rosenblum's daughter, NIna, was in my class at The Cooper Union.  Nina as I remember painted my portrait one year.  Her father, Walter, was a teacher and skilled photographer responsible for lifting up the reputation of Lewis Hine, who was himself a great photographer of American grit and determination.  Dr. Naomi Rosenblum has written a classic history of photography; her research and clear thinking are essential.

Before I left college I was awarded a scholarship to Yale/Summer at Norfolk, and by coincidence Walter Rosenblum was teaching the photography classes there, so I had a chance to learn from the best.  My dark room technique improved, and I was beginning to feel self-confident - enough to get into an argument with the visiting artist Walker Evans ( who happened to be someone I had great respect and admiration for ).  At first, I didn't recognize him ( he had a white beard ) but he did speak with a voice of authority.  I knew his work with James Agee in "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men", and I had collected Walker Evans photos which I cut out of old Fortune Magazines.

The following summer I had the good fortune to be on scholarship to Boston University at Tanglewood, and once again, Walter Rosenblum was there to introduce us to Paul Strand who was there for a screening of his movie "The Wave".  Paul Strand was quite old at that point and loosing his eyesight, but for me he was the Corot of early 20th century photography.

I had to make up my mind about what I was going to do with my art, and I felt my photos would never match up to these great masters, so I took another path towards painting and printmaking.  I made large paintings that had a hard time fitting into small gallery spaces in New York City.  One such place on east 69th street was The Carlton Gallery.  Carlton Willers' contacts in the photography world ran deep and wide.  I met Helen Gee of Limelight, Helen Levitt, and Josef Koudelka, but the absolute high point was when I was introduced to Henri Cartier Bresson who was having a show at Carlton Gallery, not of his photos, but of his drawings!  It was at that show when Carlton offered me a signed Bresson photo of  Matisse drawing a white dove... but I couldn't scrounge the $500. to buy the print. My great regret!

The Carlton Gallery closed after a few years, but I had a chance to meet many interesting photographers and artists there.  Now it is my turn to be the teacher, and as I work at R.I.T. I can reflect on how paths cross, and I can speculate on who the future artists will be and the stories they will tell.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Stepping Out For Art

Andy Gilmore in  "Geometries"

The sponsor for this blog deserves a lot of credit - First Fridays is a new incarnation of what was once called "Gallery Night", but now it should be called a hit - and credit can be given to all those who come out to the venues to see what is new, and support the visual arts.  Enthusiastic crowds of people who jam the parking lots, and maneuver their way to the gallery venues - make all this effort worthwhile.  For the artists who are on view - their work would not be seen in such large numbers were it not for the collective effort of gallery owners who stay open a few more hours on a Friday evening once a month.

The Design Gallery at RRCDC is a few steps up from the parking lot at The Hungerford Building on Main Street. The lot is full and First Friday ( Oct 1, 2010 ) is getting underway.  "Slow and Steady" is a photography show that celebrates the slow food movement and is a testament to the produce and the people found at public markets in and around our area.  Our public markets, where farmers and their customers meet, are uncut gems just for the finding.  Christin Boggs presents a suite of photos as her MFA Thesis exhibition and they have a tinge of nostalgia around the edges; maybe it is the belatedness of the color or the casual cropping of the images....

A recent closing of their Park Avenue location has meant that R.I.T.'s student run Gallery r has to look for temporary space to stay with its schedule of exhibitions, and it has gotten off to a rousing start with a friendly amalgam of art and music in a rambling show capitalizing on the same spirit of enterprise that brought Black Mountain College to national prominence over fifty years ago.  At The Hungerford Building the show is called PORCH, and there is interactive art being produced - the notion of collaboration is alive and well.  Installations, and separate works of art indicate a lively, inquisitive student body, which holds much promise for the future.

Recent graduates take over the Joy Gallery on Rochester's west side for a two person essay on the state of abstract art in a show titled "Hard Work".  Here lyrical layers of color in deeper tones by Bradley Butler rub shoulders with hard edge grids of color by Rick Minard.  Butler has a knack for improvisation and the experiments can be dark, poetic and oceanic.  Minard on the other hand is more analytical, precise and buoyant in his color choices.

The whole notion of analysis is paramount in the show titled " Geometries" at Rochester Contemporary Art Center.  This show also catches the wave of journalism that informs many contemporary art projects, in the sense that artists keep track of the days they work, and are conscious of the passage of time.  You could say that the art of Christopher McNulty is cumulative, and embodies meaning,  even makes meaning manifest in the content of his art (marking time).  A circular work on paper is created by making 20,193 little burn marks to commemorate each of the days that an actuarial table predicts that the artist has left to live. Some artists have that ability to make the notion of time palpable, and I think of the delicate drawings of Vija Celmins, and the many photos of Muybridge - who literally demonstrates the duration of actions and reactions on bodies.

Perhaps most telling are the prints left by an auto exhaust pipe in common use by the artist. Set up like pages from a diary, I began to wonder if the marks made were more than Mr. McNulty had hoped for - this is literally your carbon footprint.  For gallery goers looking for beauty- this kind of exhibit can get you to think but also reward you for your efforts.  "Geometries" contains experiments in color by Andy Gilmore  who is a designer/illustrator passionate about form and making eloquent use of the inkjet print.
Max Bill had his way with primary colors in the old analogue days, and Mr. Gilmore updates this pursuit with digital blends and layers that are simple, clean and elegant.

Mitch Messina, and Karen Sardisco had their opening reception in Nazareth College's Arts Center Gallery, and they look like two artists who grew up together.  This juxtaposition of cast metal sculpture alongside mixed media paintings in frames makes the space of the gallery vibrate with figuration.  Karen Sardisco's art contains fragments and diagrams of plants and cell structures, grids and other accumulations usually in dark marks on a light ground, in some ways reminding me of art by Terry Winters.  Messina, a popular teacher who now heads the department at Nazareth College is an active sculptor with a social message:  the figure found in groups or singled out - is vulnerable, and maybe won't fit into the machines that are built for them.

Remarkably, I saw all these shows in one evening with a return to the Hungerford Building to see an installation by my neighbor, Sterz.  He is a sculptor of light and action - in this iteration we have two florescent pink sheets of acetate hanging from the high ceiling, they dance in a breeze from an electric fan - through which a theatre spot light casts its ethereal glow on a white wall.  The thin sheets hanging from a thread move about within a small circumference, the effect of the dance of light and color is mesmerizing. I am reminded of a line from William Carlos Williams:  "so much depends upon a red wheel barrow"..  and I am thankful for an art that merges into poetry, into psychology, into simplicity,  into life.